Peace

Halloween Pennant Dragonfly, Horicon Marsh, Wisc.

Whether it’s a pandemic, disaster, or personal devastation, there are times in all our lives when a few moments of peace can bring us into balance. Here are a few reminders of the sweetness of life on earth, I hope they bring you peace.

 

No matter what is unfolding in these weeks of chaos and fear, a few hopeful signs of spring can be so uplifting.

Lambs, California

Carrizo Plains, California

 

Or a special gift of light, usually lasting only a second, that spotlights a wild creature just perfectly.

 

These two photos below are the same species: male Anna’s Hummingbird. One moment his gorget can be mostly black…

Anna’s hummingbird (male), California

 

…and with a turn of the bird’s head and just the right light, the gorget becomes iridescent hot pink. How incredible is that?

Anna’s Hummingbird, California.

 

I love it when light shines through a jackrabbit’s long ears. The ears look brown and furry, and then the rabbit hops into the sun and suddenly you can see each vein.

Jackrabbit, Northern California

 

Sometimes we have natural audio gifts to enhance the moment, like when you are so close to a bird gliding by that you can hear the wind in its wings.

Brown Pelican, California

 

Place can give us peace too. Sometime it’s the complete familiarity of a place that lifts our spirit.  Like knowing a place so well, you know where to go to find the wildflowers.

Shooting Stars, Dodecathion, one mile from home, Calif.

 

Or the comfort of simply knowing a bird species your whole life. I’ve probably seen a million American robins in my lifetime. It is solid, soothing information that no matter how disorienting the times are, the robin is still the robin.

American Robin eating toyon berry, Calif.

 

Old redwoods give me the comfort of feeling young.

Athena with one old redwood tree

 

A creature popping their head out of the ground always gives me a smile.

Western Toad in burrow, California

 

Sometimes magic comes in seeing a wild creature that you never knew existed…

Bigfin Reef Squid, Monterey Bay Aquarium

 

… or finding characters that are marvelously strange.

Marine Iguana, Galapagos Islands

 

I love to be out on a hike when I come upon a wild mammal just doing their own thing. We came upon this cow moose who was chomping down a grassy meal…

Kenai Peninsula, Alaska, Moose

 

… and this cow elk, quietly grazing.

Elk in Yellowstone

 

We have these moments in nature because, as humans, we are part of nature. Fortunately, our sweet memories can carry us through the challenging times, remind us how wonderful life can be.

 

Be well, my friends.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexandra.

Black-necked Stilts, Northern California

 

Sloths

Two-toed sloth, Costa Rica. Photo: Athena Alexander

It’s times like these, when the world is swirling, that I look to my slow-moving wildlife friends to help me slow down, get grounded. Let’s take a look at the world’s slowest mammal: the sloth.

 

Lethargic and sedentary, sloths can be found in the tropical rainforests of South and Central America. We had the thrill of seeing a few individuals in Costa Rica.

 

Wild Bromeliads, Costa Rica Rainforest. Photo: Athena Alexander

 

With a name that means “laziness,” sloths have very slow metabolism and are motionless 90% of the time.

 

About the size of a medium dog, a sloth is difficult to spot in the rainforest because they are deeply hidden in tree canopies, and usually high up.

 

Rainforest. Photo: Athena Alexander

 

They move so slow that algae grows in their fur. The algae helps them blend into the foliage. In addition to the algae, the fur has an ecosystem of arthropods–moths, beetles, mites, and more.

 

Vulnerable in their sluggishness, this arboreal mammal stays hidden in the treetop to avoid predators. With a typical life span of 12 years, some sloths are born, live, and die in the same tree.

 

Equipped with claws for hands and feet, sloths hang upside down in trees. They cannot walk, so they drag themselves along the ground, if necessary. Several locals told us they saw sloths using telephone lines to move about, when there were no trees.

 

With poor vision and poor hearing, sloths rely on smell and touch to find food.

 

There are two extant families of sloths:  the two-toed and three-toed. Both are photographed here. But this title is misleading, because all sloths have three toes, even the ones named two-toed…and they’re not toes, they’re claws.

 

The two-toed sloths eat fruit, leaves, insects and small lizards; three-toed sloths are herbivorous, eat leaves and buds.

 

Wikipedia Sloth

 

When we travelled to Costa Rica, we hoped to see many natural beauties, but the sloth was top on our list. We asked many people where we might see a wild sloth, including the cab driver who met us at the airport.

 

En route to our destination, the cab driver proudly stopped in a park in a very small town and took us directly to The Tree.

 

Because the sloth rarely moves, the cab driver knew exactly the tree and limb on which to find the sloth.

 

It looked liked a hairy wasp nest. It was motionless, and impossible to recognize. Taking a photograph was pointless. But still, it was a thrill.

 

A week later, we were in a Costa Rican rainforest with a guide. He, too, knew exactly where to take us to see the sloths.

 

It was hot, sticky, and buggy, and there was much going on in this active rainforest. Birds were flitting, toucans were squawking, monkeys were shrieking, and butterflies fluttered around us.

 

The sloths were conked out, deep in sleep.

 

Over one hundred feet (30m) up, and hidden in a tangle of leaves and vines, there was one sloth. In a different tree farther away, was another.

 

Binoculars and camera at the ready, we stood there craning our necks for over a half hour, waiting for a moment when the sloth would move. We were ready for a twitch, a wink, an opening eyelid, anything.

 

Eventually the three-toed sloth opened one eye halfway, for a moment. It was marvelous. Athena caught the moment (below).

Three-toed sloth, Costa Rica. Photo: Athena Alexander

 

Notice the green tint in the arm covering the face…that’s algae.

 

About once a week they make their way down the tree to go to the bathroom. They urinate, defecate, bury it, and climb back up.

 

Crazy as it sounds, I sure would like to see that.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photographs by Athena Alexander.

Green Violetear Hummingbird, Costa Rica. Photo: Athena Alexander

 

Lava Land, the Big Island

Saddle Road, Big Island, vast landscapes of lava

 

Punalu’u Beach, Black sand beach from lava

The Hawaiian Islands are like no other place in the world. While there are many tropical attractions for vacationers including beaches, palm trees, and balmy fragrant air, it is the volcanoes that lend a unique aspect to these picturesque islands.

Lava beach

 

Here in the northern Pacific Ocean, there is a volcanic hotspot where magma from below the surface wells up. Movement over this magma hotspot by the largest tectonic plate on Earth, the Pacific Plate, creates the volcanic activity. This is what created the islands.

 

The eruptions have been occurring for millions of years, and still do to this day.

 

Crab, Big Island

 

All of the Hawaiian Islands show evidence of lava flows, but there is no island more active today with volcanic lava flows than the Big Island. It is on the far east end of the archipelago, and is the youngest island, and therefore has the most activity.

 

All photos posted here are from the Big Island.

 

Big Island, wall made of black lava rocks

 

Evolution of Hawaiian Volcanos

 

Visitors to the Big Island can see steam vents, craters, lava tubes, and vast landscapes of hardened lava.

 

Thurston Lava Tube, Big Island

 

I have visited the Big Island seven times since 1996. What I find most extraordinary is that the land, especially near Kilauea Volcano in Volcanoes National Park, is constantly changing shape due to the volcano activity.

 

Roads we drove on and trails we hiked in the 1990s have been swallowed up by lava flows, gone now.

 

These two photos taken at Kilauea as recently as 2016 reflect a landscape that no longer exists, due to the massive eruption in May of 2018.

 

Close-up, Halema’uma’u Crater at Kilauea Volcano

 

Halema’uma’u Crater, Kilauea overlook in 2016

 

Take a look at this video with shocking aerial footage of the lava flows during the May, 2018 eruption. 2018 Eruption of Kilauea.

 

This photo shows folks watching a Kilauea eruption in 1924.

 

Photo of Kilauea Halema’uma’u Crater in 1924. Big Island, HI.

 

The National Park Service has a website that is constantly updated for people who are planning a visit to the Big Island, supplying information on the most current eruptions, conditions, and road closures.

 

Big Island Hawaii Volcanoes

Big Island Hawaii Volcanoes. Courtesy explore-the-big-island.com.

 

But it’s not just around Kilauea where you see the lava activity. Evidence of lava flows new and old can be seen on the Big Island wherever you go.

 

Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park, aka The Place of Refuge, is located on the west coast of the Big Island. Until the early 19th century, this 420 acre (1.7 sq. km.) site was a designated place of refuge for Hawaiians who had broken the law.

 

Walls of this ancient site, built centuries ago, were built with lava rock.

 

Pu’uhonua O Honaunau, Place of Refuge, Hawaii

 

Place of Refuge aka Pu’uhonua o Honaunau

 

The place where Captain James Cook was killed on February 14, 1779, shows his monument built on black lava rocks.

 

Cook monument, Kealakekua Bay, HI

 

Residents live around the lava, turtles hunt on it, birds and crabs traverse it.

 

Wherever you venture on the Big Island, black lava tells poignant stories of the numerous eruptions and the people who have embraced this magical, but volatile, land.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

 

Green Sea Turtle on lava, Big Island

 

Leaping Wildlife

Green and Black Poison Dart Frog, Costa Rica

Let’s celebrate this weekend’s Leap Day by joining some of the Earth’s most talented leapers.

 

Wildlife leapers come in all shapes and sizes.

 

One of my favorite leapers is the impala. Prime prey for many of Africa’s large mammals, impala’s defense includes leaps. Look at those long, thin legs…what magic they can do.

 

Impala, Botswana

 

They have a leap so unique, it has it’s own word: stotting.

 

While running, they fly through the air, land on their forelegs, then kick up their hind legs, and land on all four again. It’s all so fast you don’t know what happened until it’s over. There are many theories for the purpose of this tactic, mainly defense (see link above). There’s a stotting photo at the end.

 

The Klipspringer is another leaping African antelope, lives on rocky cliffs. Their name comes from Afrikaans:  klip (“rock”) springer (“leaper”).

 

This klipspringer was about a mile above us on a rocky hillside, gracefully darting across a precipitous granite wall.

Klipspringer, Botswana, Africa

 

More leapers live across the world in Australia where hopping kangaroos are a classic sight. They hop with the aid of large, stretchy tendons in their hind legs; the tail is also an aid.

 

Grey Kangaroos, Australia

 

This wallaby was only as tall as my knee, and her hop was not very big. I think the joey in her pouch might’ve had something to do with that.

Mareeba Rock Wallaby, Australia

 

This kangaroo, on the other hand, was nearly as tall as me.

Eastern Grey Kangaroo, Australia

 

Once when I was on an Australian back road, a mob of large kangaroos came clomping by at great speed. There were about a half dozen of them, and what a cacophony with their long hind feet and tails slapping the ground.

 

They tried to change course when they saw our jeep, but they were moving at such high speed that even when they stopped hopping, their large, heavy bodies kept sliding.

 

And then there’s monkeys. They sail through the air, land on a tree limb, grab onto vines, and skillfully make their way through a forest. They use their tails, too.

 

If you have ever spent a night in a monkey’s world, you are familiar with the sounds of this mischievous mammal pouncing on the rooftop above you.

Blue Monkey, Mt. Kenya, Kenya, Africa

 

We had the fortune of watching these colobus monkeys effortlessly swinging through the trees.

Colobus Monkey, Mt. Kenya, Africa

 

Frogs jump. This crazy one landed on glass, affording a good view of their powerful jumping legs and suction-cup toe pads.

 

Spring Peeper, Frog, Horicon Marsh, Wisconsin

 

Many frogs can jump more than 20 times their body length.

 

We found this frog sleeping in the ladies’ room blinds, in Mareeba Australia. It was a hot day in the Fahrenheit hundreds and this opportunist found a cool spot…no jumping that day.

 

Frog in the ladies room, Australian Green Tree Frog, Ranoidea caerulea

 

These two colorful frogs are tiny–about the size of your thumb. With their petite size, they are far more difficult to spot than you would think, considering their loud colors.

Painted Reed Frog, Botswana, Africa

 

This tiny poison dart frog chose a soggy grass patch to hide in. For every step I took to see it, a cloud of mosquitoes poofed up. About 20 mosquito bites later, it landed on this more posable wood piece.

 

Strawberry Poison Dart Frog, Costa Rica

 

Rabbits hop. We happened to startle this one while hiking in Nevada. We were in rattlesnake territory, so I was relieved it was only a rabbit that hopped out of the undergrowth.

Rabbit, Nevada.

 

Last summer I accidentally startled a large rattlesnake, and that’s when I did the hopping.

 

And where would we be without leaping lizards in our world?

 

Lizards have a long list of predators, so they have to be quick. Whether they are small…

 

Dwarf Gecko, Belize

or large…

Green Iguana, Belize. Photo: Athena Alexander

…they can vanish in an instant.

 

My favorite lizard, the basilisk, can be seen here demonstrating the muscular legs that lend them their leaping skills. They not only leap on land, they leap on water, too.

Basilisk Lizard, Belize

 

Not to be outdone by mammals, amphibians, or reptiles, some of our long-legged insects have incredible leaping abilities. Spiders, crickets, grasshoppers and katydids, to name a few.

 

Katydid, California

 

I live on a dry, chaparral mountain and hot summer days are great for watching grasshoppers. They leap so high I can’t even see where they go. It’s only when they land that I see them again. Their long legs catapult them into the air and their wings extend the leap into flight.

 

I’ve read that if humans could jump the way grasshoppers do, we would be able to easily leap the length of a football field.

 

Even though Leap Day only occurs once every four years, we have the pleasure of these leaping creatures every day on Earth. Makes me want to leap with joy.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander except for last photo.

Stotting black-face impala. Photo by Yathin sk, Namibia. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Okefenokee’s Pitcher Plants

Alligator, Okefenokee Swamp

It had been about a half hour of boating along the Okefenokee Swamp’s main channel before we arrived at the pitcher plant area.

 

In that time, several alligators cruised by our boat searching for fish or snakes to devour, their menacing eyes regarding us with dead blankness.

Alligator and Spanish Moss, Okefenokee

 

Our guide was excited to show us the carnivorous plants. Later I would understand why, but for now it was eerie: hungry alligators half-hidden in black water, masses of thick moss hanging from every tree–and we were on our way to see flesh-eating plants.

 

Permanently saturated wetlands, like the Okefenokee, have acidic water; soil is typically low in nitrogen and nutrients. Carnivorous pitcher plants have adapted to obtain minerals and nutrition from the living beings they trap.

 

Pitcher plants, their rhizomes underwater, can be seen hidden in thickets of tall grasses. Look closely in the center of this photo.

 

 

Okefenokee Swamp, pitcher plants in center

 

You look at this elegant plant never thinking it has skeletons floating inside.

Pitcher Plant

 

There are two major pitcher plant families in the world: Nepenthaceae and Sarraceniacea. The genus Nepenthes, found in the Old World, has more than 170 species of pitcher plants; found in many parts of Asia and elsewhere.

 

The Sarraceniacea pitcher plants are found in the New World, and all are native to North America.

 

The plants use chemicals and/or physical properties to attract and ensnare prey. Their shapes, which vary among species, are also a key factor in trapping prey.

 

The various species are known to attract ants, termites, flies, beetles, moths, or butterflies. Some species attract spiders, and still other species extract nourishment from bat feces or forest floor detritus.

 

The Okefenokee species, the Hooded Pitcher Plant, attracts ants and a wide range of flying insects.

 

There are glands near the top of Sarracenia minor that produce sweet-smelling nectar. Insects are attracted to the scent.

 

In addition, the white spots on the back of the hood, areoles, are translucent, allowing light to enter into the pitcher. Insects are lured in by the sweet smell and the light. In springtime there is a flower, also an attractant.

 

Notice the white “windows” in this close-up.

Sarracenia minor, Okefenokee

 

Once inside, the insect is trapped by stiff, down-pointing hairs that do not allow exit. They slide down the pitcher’s narrow shape, and are caught in water at the base, where they drown.

 

Dissolved enzymes in the water eventually digest the insects. The plant absorbs the insects’ soft parts, and the skeletons remain.

 

The hood of this species also prevents the trapped insect from escaping, while keeping rainwater out of the pitcher’s enzymatic waters.

 

A meat-eating plant filled with skeletons…grows in swamp water…attracts, kills, and eats insects.

 

Oh, the endless marvel of nature.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

A Sarracenia rhizome. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Sarracenia minor range.png

Range of Sarracenia minor. Southeast U.S. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

Cumberland Island

Cumberland Island Ferry Boat Dock, St. Marys, Georgia. Jet in blue shirt and hat.

Cumberland Island National Seashore is a small barrier island off the Atlantic Coast of Georgia. Taking the ferry and spending a day on the island offers a peaceful day trip and a pleasant hike.

 

Before we even boarded the ferry, wildlife were entertaining us. We noticed a group of fourth graders squealing at something under the dock, they had found about a dozen fiddler crabs in the low-tide mud.

 

Fiddler Crabs, St. Marys, Georgia

 

This roseate spoonbill was busy probing the mud, filtering crustaceans in its magnificent bill.

Roseate Spoonbill, St. Marys, Georgia

 

The ferry ride is about 45 minutes long and cruises past numerous islands and marshes.

 

The island is only 18 miles (29 km) long. The east side faces the ocean; while the west side faces saltwater marshes and rivers, the Cumberland Sound.

 

It has a long, peopleless beach where we watched several flocks of royal terns in their winter plumage.

Royal Tern pair, Cumberland Island

Georgia Coast overview

Ferry boat Info

Cumberland Island Wikipedia

Cumberland Sound from Cumberland Island

 

Cumberland Island is one of Georgia’s 14 major barrier islands–it is the largest. Fortunately for us, most of Georgia’s barrier islands are protected by state or federal governments.

 

Barrier islands are coastal landforms that have been formed by tides, waves, wind, sand and other elements. They protect the coastline by forming a barrier, thereby blocking ocean waves and wind from directly hitting the mainland. See graphic at end.

 

These islands, also known as the Golden Isles, are so named for the rich amber color of the marsh grasses.

 

While there are many popular tourist attractions on Georgia’s islands, what I like about Cumberland is that it’s refreshingly devoid of tourist facilities and commercialism. There are no stores or concessions here, no golf courses or gift shops, not even garbage cans. You eat and drink what you brought, and pack your garbage out.

 

The Park Service only allows 300 visitors a day. Most people come just for the day, but there is an inn (prohibitively expensive) and camping available.

 

The emphasis is on the wilderness and wildlife.

 

In addition to the barrier islands, Georgia’s coast is comprised of 400,000 acres (1,619 sq. km.) of saltwater marshes. Influenced continuously by the ocean’s tidal action, the marshes flood and drain constantly, bringing in microscopic organisms that enrich the water with oxygen.

 

Abundant fish, shellfish, plants, insects, and birds are attracted to these waters. Marsh grasses and the shallow waters provide cover for the wildlife.

Saltwater Marsh near Cumberland Island

 

There is also a maritime forest on Cumberland Island. It has live oak trees curiously stunted by salt air; they are thickly covered with Spanish moss. The area’s ubiquitous saw palmetto plants (in foreground) dominate the forest floor.

Maritime Forest, Cumberland Island

 

While in this unusual forest, we heard the crashing surf and soon found untouched dunes and the Atlantic.

Sand Dunes and Atlantic Ocean, Cumberland Island

 

Conservationists have been working for decades to protect this beach, successfully encouraging sea turtles to nest. Last year the National Park Service counted 885 sea turtle nests here. The majority of the nests belonged to the endangered loggerhead turtle.

 

This pristine beach has not always been protected. One of the most ferocious protectors of the loggerhead turtles is Carol Ruckdeschel, who has lived on Cumberland for decades. The book “Untamed” by Will Harlan outlines the many achievements Carol has made, often single-handedly, in protecting the turtles and other wildlife on Cumberland Island.

 

Horseshoe crab shells, one jellyfish, and several species of shorebirds dotted the beach. Coconuts, palm trunks and other washed-up detritus were covered with seaweed and barnacles.

Horseshoe crab shell, Cumberland Island

 

Winds were fierce, so we kept hiking.

Beach hikers, my sister and brother-in-law.

 

There are other attractions on the island, like the Dungeness Ruins, a fire-ravaged and abandoned estate with much human history, as well as feral horses.

Dungeness Ruins and feral horse

 

We did not have much time to linger on our mild winter day. The sun sets early in November, and there was only one departing afternoon ferry, it left at 4:45 pm. More ferries are offered in the summer.

 

After we boarded the ferry, the magic did not end. Those same fourth graders were on board, and when the squealing began, I went over to see what they had found this time. Dolphins.

 

Then one last parting gift: the setting sun.

 

As we cruised through the Golden Isles, we were surrounded by miles and miles of golden marsh grasses, lit up like only the sun can do.

Golden Isles, horizontal line through center of image is sunlit golden marsh grasses

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Coastal Landforms, Barrier Island on right. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

 

 

Geckos and Birds at the Painted Church

There is a humble tourist attraction on Hawaii’s Big Island called the Painted Church. It is one of my favorite Hawaiian spots with its quiet presence and tropical landscape, on a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

 

When we visited last month, a house finch and gecko were together in this papaya tree on the church grounds.

 

This bright and exotic gecko lives on three of the Hawaiian Islands. Gold Dust Day Gecko. 

Gold Dust Day Gecko, Hawaii

This is not a pair you usually see together, but it was easy to see why.

House Finch, Hawaii

The house finch had found a lusciously ripe papaya and had used his strong bill to open the fruit. The gecko was taking advantage of the opened fruit, called in the gang.

 

Geckos feed on fruit, nectar, and insects, and you can see the smorgasbord they were enjoying that day.

 

Six Geckos, Hawaii

There are 1,500 species of geckos in the world. This particular species, Phelsuma laticauda laticauda, is diurnal, active during the day. They are native to Northern Madagascar.

 

Papaya Tree, Hawaii

 

Many birds came into the papaya trees that day.

 

Saffron Finch in Papaya Tree, Hawaii

There are always many butterflies and birds visiting the fruit trees and flowering plants at The Painted Church. I have never seen a lot of tourists visit the church–it’s out of the way–and those who do visit go inside the church, stay five minutes, and drive away.

 

It is so named for the interior that is painted with a unique combination of biblical and Hawaiian themes.

Painted Church interior, Hawaii

The church is more formally named St. Benedict’s Catholic Church, built in 1899. Belgian Catholic missionary Father John Velghe painted the frescoes. They still hold regular Sunday services here.

 

The adjacent cemetery shows the black lava that is so prevalent on this volcanic island. Every time I visit, it is dancing with butterflies.

Painted Church cemetery, Hawaii. Pacific Ocean on horizon.

 

This juvenile gecko in the cemetery was the length of my thumb.

Juvenile Gecko, Hawaii

For over a hundred years people and butterflies and birds have been visiting this tranquil spot on the hill. Thousands of people have stood on the lava sidewalk looking out over the Pacific Ocean. I’m glad to be one of them.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Yellow-billed Cardinal on Papaya Tree, Hawaii

 

Celebrating the River Otter

Snow Geese and Sutter Buttes, Sacramento Valley, CA

Tule marsh with snow geese. Sacramento NWR.

Every winter we drive up to the Sacramento Valley to watch the bird migration. This year we not only had the spectacle of millions of geese and ducks, we were also treated to a half hour with three feisty river otters.

 

 

The Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge offers a self-guided auto tour that loops through 10,819 acres (43.78 sq. km.) of wetlands. The Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that about three million ducks and close to one million geese are spending this winter here.

 

Every winter I write a post or two on what we found in the Sacramento Valley. There are a few links below.

Snow Geese

 

Across the United States, the North American River Otter has had a difficult history with declining populations due primarily to hunting, water pollution and habitat destruction. Reintroduction programs have been successful, but the otters still have a tenuous existence.

 

In some states it is now legal again to hunt river otters, though not in California. Range map below.

 

Over the course of our winter wildlife viewing in these wetlands (25+ years), we have had a total of about ten minutes observing river otters. They simply haven’t been around much, despite the wetlands being a perfect habitat.

Sacramento NWR, snowy Mount Shasta in background

 

Last year we had the joy of watching one otter in a flooded field. Five Minutes with a River Otter.

River Otter walking (last year)

This year we had a bonanza with three otters.

 

Fortunately we took the auto tour very slowly, or we probably would not have spotted the otter activity.

 

It is a six-mile drive and we spent five hours on it.

 

After years of practice, including numerous African game drives, we have perfected our auto tour experiences. I am the safari driver, while Athena has the entire back seat for photographing. She has both windows open and several lenses available.

 

Our winters in the Sacramento Valley are always cold, and often rainy…but we are never miserable. We always bring along a hearty lunch and a thermos of hot tea. For elevenses, we warm our home-baked scones on the dashboard heater vent.

 

It is prohibited to get out of the vehicle except in the 3 or 4 designated spots. Using the vehicle as a moving blind, visitors are able to see birds and mammals up close without disturbing them.

Sacramento NWR bird watch sign

When we first noticed a flock of coots flustered and riled in a deep ditch of water, we stopped to see what the excitement was about. We couldn’t see anything, so I slowly drove forward.

 

About five minutes later and along the same water-filled ditch, we saw more movement, still unidentifiable.

 

Here’s what it looked like without optics. There is an otter in this photo: in the center–a dark brown mass in the watery green weeds. It is just below the tall golden reeds and slightly right and back of a horizontal white weed.

Otter in ditch, Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge

 

Tricky spotting.

 

We both had our binoculars up, scanning, scanning. Hmm…something was going on.

 

Then an otter head popped out.

Otter with fish. Lines on the back and neck demonstrate how water courses off the otter’s fur.

 

And another.

Otter pair with fish

 

Athena’s camera was rapidly firing, and we were silently thrilled as the two active otters were joined by a third.

 

Each otter would vanish under the cold, dark water, then come up with a wriggling, silvery fish in its mouth. It was a frenzy. Continued for a half hour.

 

Eventually the three otters got full bellies, swam to the end of the ditch, scampered out of the water and disappeared.

Otters coming onto land.

 

The rains had been abundant, and fish were too. Oh how I love the blissful days in nature.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Selfie of Jet (L) and Athena (R)

Related posts:

Winter Ducks and More

Snow Geese are Heading Home

Wildlife Auto Tours

Snow Geese

LontraCanadensisMap.svg

No. American River Otter Range Map. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

The Raven

Raven, Point Lobos, California

This all-black bird has either fascinated or intimidated humans for centuries. I am one of the fascinated fans. Corvus corax  have a versatile and wide-ranging diet; a full repertoire of vocalizations; and a rare ability to problem-solve.

 

A member of the Corvid family, the most intelligent birds on the planet, ravens have captivated humans for centuries. Hundreds of scientific studies and thousands of observations continue to prove how advanced a raven’s thinking is.

 

Corvids include crows, jays, magpies, rooks, jackdaws, and more.  Common Raven Wikipedia.

 

At the Golden Gate Bridge, SF skyline in background

 

They reside in our planet’s northern hemisphere; see range maps at end.

 

This photograph offers a good size comparison between a bald eagle (left) and a raven (right). It was very rainy day and we were all drenched and a little cranky.

Bald eagle (juvenile) on left, raven on right. Sacramento NWR, CA

 

It can be difficult to distinguish the difference between a raven and a crow. They look very much alike, differences are subtle.

 

Here are a few of the differences that help me with identification:

  • The raven is the larger of the two birds;
  • Adult ravens usually travel in pairs, whereas crows are often seen in large flocks;
  • The call of a raven is a deeper croak than the crow;
  • Ravens like large expanses of open land, while crows are more often seen in densely populated areas;
  •  A raven’s tail, which you can see well in the photograph below, has varying lengths and tapers into a rounded wedge shape; whereas a crow’s tail has feathers all the same length, the end is straight across.

Raven in flight

More info for distinguishing the two here.

 

Raven

 

We have a raven pair on our property who often come to roost at the end of the day. After the sun has set, I hear them call to each other. Caw, caw, caw says one. Then I hear the other one reply: caw, caw, caw. They can go on like this for several minutes. I think they’re discussing which tree to spend the night in.

 

Here they were captured by our camera trap. They are keen to collect our offering of mice, caught in traps from our storage space. Look closely in the right raven’s mouth. They take the mice and fly off with their cache; circle this stump from above on their daily hunting route.

 

Even the Tower of London has a long history with ravens.

 

Not everyone, including Edgar Allan Poe, find ravens to be a delight. But even Mr. Poe, in his poem, found them to be mysterious.

 

Common Raven, Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, California

 

Big and raucous, and sporting the all-black color of the underworld, ravens have an intimidating effect on some cultures.

 

If you happen to see a raven blinking in a moment when their extra protective eyelid, the nictitating membrane, is revealed, they can look eerie.

Raven revealing nictitating membrane in eye

 

But observe them long enough and you hear dozens of creative vocalizations that you never knew were possible. You see barrel rolls and aerobatic displays that can only be interpreted as one thing: fun.

 

You see enough of the fun and games of ravens…and you’re hooked for life.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

 

 

Range Map for Common Raven

North America Range Map for Common Raven, courtesy allaboutbirds.org

Corvus corax map.jpg

World Map, Common Raven Range, courtesy Wikipedia

Jubilee and Munin, two of the London Tower’s ravens in 2016. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

The Okefenokee Swamp

Alligator, Okefenokee Swamp

Here’s a place I have heard about my whole life. Catchy name. I got to visit it this past November, and it is as unusual and quirky as it’s name…and far more exotic and beautiful than I had ever imagined.

 

The Okefenokee Swamp is a peat-filled wetland that straddles the U.S. Georgia-Florida border. A vast and shallow bog, it covers nearly a half-million acres (177,000 ha). In ancient times it was part of the ocean floor.

Cresser Prairie, Okefenokee Swamp

There are hiking trails, a self-guided auto tour, an observation tower, camping, and more. But being on the water is decidedly the best way to experience the Okefenokee.  You can rent boats, take your own out, or pay for a boat tour.

 

We took the guided 90-minute boat tour, and it was excellent.

 

Alligators peered out from beneath the water’s surface.

Alligator

 

 

Pond cypress trees

Pond-cypress trees and Suwannee Channel

 

It is the largest blackwater swamp in North America. The water is characteristically slow-moving, filtering through vegetation and decay, resulting in tannins that make the water appear black.

 

Blackwater generally has less nutrients and more acid, hosting flora and fauna different than you see around fast-moving water.

 

The cypress trees (Taxodium ascendens) (pictured above), rooted in water, have a curious bulbous base that assists in stabilizing the tree.

 

Trees living in water:  not something we see very often.

 

Surrounding the cypress trees are woody projections, tapered stumps, called “cypress knees.” These are part of the cypress root system thought to provide the tree with stability as well as oxygen.

Cypress Knees in front center

The guide steered the boat down the long man-made Suwannee Canal, as we suspiciously eyed the alligators, kept our limbs and digits well inside the boat. Monarchs fluttered along the shoreline, turkey vultures soared overhead, woodpeckers and blue jays dipped among the trees while catbirds shouted their mewing calls.

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Forest trees, thickly draped with Spanish moss, arched overhead.

Moss-draped forest

I studied the faces of canoeists as they glided by, admired their calm as they paddled through the black, alligator-studded water.

Canoeists in Okefenokee Swamp

After we left the main channel, we headed into the Chesser prairie. There are many wetland prairies, or open landscapes, in the Okefenokee and they’re all named.

 

Wading birds like ibis, egrets, and herons dotted the landscape.

 

In addition to the abundant water lilies (Nymphaea odorata), clumps of pitcher plants (Sarraceniaceae) could be seen in a few places. A cobra-shaped carnivorous plant, it eats and digests insects.

 

Its sweet nectar entices the insect in while the waxy inner surface traps the insect, who then drowns in the inner chamber.

Pitcher Plant

The history of the Okefenokee is an interesting one, home to Native Americans and white settlers in earlier centuries. Toward the beginning of the 20th century, opportunists embarked on draining the swamp and harvesting the cypress trees for profit.

 

Fortunately for us, by 1937 the area became protected.

 

In some parts of the Okefenokee there are small islands, called batteries, that you can see floating by.  About the size of a desktop or larger, they are made of decaying organic matter called peat that originates on the swamp floor and floats to the surface.

 

“Okefenokee” is a Native American word of Seminole origin that means “The Land of the Trembling Earth.” It is believed that the long-ago Native American residents probably walked on those floating batteries, and experienced trembling.

 

Trees and flowers that live in the water. Plants that eat insects. Mammals that eat humans. And black water wherever you look.

 

The Okefenokee Swamp is marvelously unique.

Written by Jet Eliot.
Photos by Athena Alexander.

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge Wikipedia

Visiting the Okefenokee

Informative overview